Sometimes centre backs score overhead kicks. Sometimes teams score injury-time equalisers. Sometimes teams come from two goals behind, even away from home. Sometimes a player who’s never scored before will suddenly go on to score again in quick succession. Sometimes everyone’s favourite vertically challenged, alleged England no.1 gifts you a goal by deciding to stand two yards behind the goal-line.

Against Everton a year ago, these things didn’t just happen in isolation. They didn’t happen just in the same game or the same half. Not in the final ten minutes. Not just in injury time. All these took place in the space of 90 seconds after the clock had ticked past 93 minutes.

If that joyous, utterly incredible passage of play on 21 January 2020 still feels like the most hilariously fortuitous two minutes of football we’ll ever see, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t even the most undeserved result we secured that month. Not even that week. Three days earlier, having seen his team played off the park for 94 minutes, Isaac Hayden found himself unmarked at a corner and headed the last goal seen by fans at St James’ Park. A winner. Entirely against the run of play, Chelsea had somehow been beaten. Just as, ten days before and ten days after that Everton match, we somehow pilfered draws against Wolves and Norwich when, by every statistical measure and the evidence of our own eyes, we had deserved to lose by at least a couple of goals.

We can add to the list: undeserved, head-scratching victories at Spurs – a goal from Joelinton – and at Sheffield United – an ASM header (of all things)and a VAR goal that relied on the entire opposition team stopping playing; a win at home against Southampton who somehow managed to get only three of their nineteen shots on target, and none of their five from inside the six-yard box; unlikely draws at Wolves and at home to Man City – one shot inside the box for us, compared to their fifteen. On no fewer than fifteen occasions last season our result was better than the performance deserved; only twice was it the other way round. A net gain of 23 points, by far the most of any team in the league.

Meanwhile, either side of lockdown, a club that not so long ago went five years and more than 150 games without seeing an opposition player sent off in the Premier League enjoyed a numerical advantage for more than 100 minutes in crucial and consecutive victories against Southampton and Sheffield United that all but secured our safety.

There’s another side to this, of course. With luck there always is. We could point to only one penalty in our favour across the whole of last season. Or to the four own goals we’ve scored during Bruce’s tenure, including Ritchie’s improbable, comedy effort at home to Fulham. What about the decisive VAR decision at Sheffield United this year, which not only reversed the referee’s decision for an offence that was marginal at best but also overlooked Sharp’s prior shirt pull on Fernandez? Or Fraser’s sending-off in the same game? Most worrying is the way that results this season are starting to align much more accurately with performances. The net points gain of +23 from last season compares to a net loss of -1 point this season, and the outcome of that inevitable readjustment is plain in the league table.

Most plausibly, perhaps, the ledger of Bruce’s ill fortune is filled with injuries and, above all, Covid-related lack of availability. Not only were we the first and most seriously affected Premier League team, it was also our one irreplaceable player who was most severely affected. Meanwhile, analysis undertaken by Sky last month showed that we’ve suffered the third most injuries in the league, behind Liverpool and Burnley, and that we were the only club to be affected by severe injury crises both at the beginning of the season and then again mid-season.

If that injury situation offers some counterbalance to last year’s outrageous good fortune on the field, the case for misfortune with refereeing decisions is rather less convincing. Important here is not only the number of penalties and sendings-off, but also their context and influence on the game. Of Callum Wilson’s four penalties this season, for example, three have had a decisive effect on the result, none more so than the VAR-inspired handball in the seventh minute of injury time at Spurs in yet another game where we deserved considerably less than nothing. By contrast, Billy Sharp’s is the only decisive penalty scored against us all season and that in a game we deserved to lose anyway. Factor in the massive imbalance between touches in our own box and those in the opposition’s, together with the dramatic overall increase in penalties this season, and that penalty count against actually starts to look like another unlikely element of good fortune.

Speaking of which, no assessment of Bruce’s luck as a manager would be complete without considering his record in cup draws, especially given the way our two cup quarter-finals have been mobilised as evidence in his defence. Consider this: in the five winning cup-ties that took us to those quarter-finals we had an aggregate advantage of 252 league places on the opposition. And let’s not forget that we failed to actually beat Newport (71st), Rochdale (62nd), and Oxford (51st, twice) in 90 minutes. Not so much cup runs as a cup hobbles.

What was it Napoleon is supposed to have said when appointing new generals? Ask not whether they are skilled; ask whether they are lucky. I always did wonder what Bruce’s appointment process consisted of. But as this week’s game against Crystal Palace showed, it might be time to start reconsidering even that aspect of our manager’s threadbare CV.

Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731